When my brother and I were teenagers growing up in the arse end of nowheresville — Bromsgrove to its friend — we were mainly looked after by Nanny VHS.
When my brother and I were teenagers growing up in the arse end of nowheresville — Bromsgrove to its friend — we were mainly looked after by Nanny VHS. Every day, Mummy would take us to the rental store to hire a new video so as to keep us off her back. Sometimes it would be war porn, like The Deerhunter, which I think we must have watched about eight times — and the key Russian Roulette scene about 500 times. Sometimes it would be horror porn like Shivers or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I’d quite forgotten I’d seen Shivers until I watched A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss (BBC4, Monday). But then Gatiss showed the key scene and it all came back. It’s the one where an attractive young woman is relaxing in the bath when a hideous, alien horror creature — imagine a large, aquatic, crawling penis made of raw liver — comes creeping out of the plug hole and moves inexorably towards her open legs. ‘Lalala’ goes the woman, sipping champagne, and generally luxuriating as if in a Badedas commercial. Nearer and nearer crawls the creature. Eeek! It was traumatising enough watching that scene as a brutalised spotty male teenager. Heaven only knows what effect it might have had had I been female.
Anyway, it turns out that all the time my brother and I were watching this stuff we weren’t at all warping our brains with sick and mindless schlock. We were having an education. We were experiencing the Second Golden Age of Horror Cinema.
And I’m not being sarcastic here. Nor was Gatiss (of The League of Gentlemen). Between 1968 (George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) and 1978 (John Carpenter’s Halloween), Gatiss convincingly argued, perhaps the most exciting, creative, imaginative — and definitely the most visceral — developments in cinema occurred in that much-despised genre, horror.
Among those who didn’t get it was Barry Norman, who on a clip from Film 75 was shown dismissing Shivers on the grounds that it didn’t have anything nice to say about anything. Well, duh! Then, of course, there was the big campaign in the tabloids to have ‘video nasties’ like Texas Chainsaw Massacre banned because they were nasty and mindless and poisoning the psyches of teenagers such as me and my brother Dick. How innocent such concerns seem now in the days of the suicide bomb and the internet beheading video! Back then, you’ll remember, ‘snuff movies’ were generally held to be an urban myth — because what would be the advantage of filming someone dying for real when you could just as well spare yourself the trouble of murder and prison by faking it?
Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is indeed a horrid thing. It’s about a family of backwood hicks, led by a demented ex-abattoir worker called Leatherface — whose grotesque features are mostly hidden by a mask made of human skin — who likes nothing more than chopping innocent victims to bits. One day, a bunch of fresh-faced college kids rolls up, with all-too predictable consequences. The reason it’s so scarily authentic, we learnt from an interview with Hooper, is that it was filmed in 100°-plus temperatures and all the rotting bones used to dress the set began to putrefy so horribly that the cast kept having to disappear between takes to throw up.
What Hooper achieved, as did Romero before him in his merciless despatch of the hero at the end of Night of the Living Dead, as, too, did Roman Polanski at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, was to present a universe altogether harsher and more unforgiving than the one where a simple stake through the heart can make everything better.
This thrillingly nihilistic message soon penetrated to mainstream cinema too, thanks to the masterpiece that is The Omen. It wasn’t originally going to be a masterpiece: not when the actor first cast to play the US ambassador (and adoptive parent of the young Antichrist Damien) was Charles Bronson. But then, by some miracle, Gregory Peck decided he liked the script and invested the whole project with dignity and plausibility. The Omen was huge — the fourth highest grossing film of 1976 (after Rocky; A Star Is Born; All the President’s Men); and also quite possibly the grossest highest-grossing film, if you remember the scene where David Warner gets his head sliced off by that sheet of glass falling off the back of the lorry.
Then came John Carpenter’s Halloween, the film that spawned a whole horror subgenre in which an apparently indestructible slasher creature (cf. also A Nightmare on Elm Street) returns to avenge some relatively trivial slight by murdering every cute teenager in the neighbourhood. Carpenter’s skill, much replicated since, was to conjure a world in which it is impossible to see any remotely shadowy nook or even suburban hedgerow without imagining there is someone there lurking with a knife to kill you. He also composes brilliant electronic soundtracks and directed one of the Queen’s all-time favourite movies, Assault on Precinct 13. But that’s another story.